Central intelligence - Back to the future, by Colin Talbot

3 Mar 05
It is 25 years since the 1980s political satire, Yes, Minister, first hit our screens. But its portrayal of the senior civil service's success in resisting ministerial reforms is probably even more accurate today

04 March 2005

It is 25 years since the 1980s political satire, Yes, Minister, first hit our screens. But its portrayal of the senior civil service's success in resisting ministerial reforms is probably even more accurate today

Two things happened last week which sparked the idea for this column. The first was that the BBC began a two-part series celebrating 25 years since the inception of the seminal — and terrifyingly accurate — TV series Yes, Minister. The retrospective is being presented by former Conservative leader William Hague from the point of view of Westminster and Whitehall insiders.

The second was a seminar organised by scholars from Queen Mary, University of London on 'outsiders in Whitehall'. It was attended by an interesting array of 'insiders' and 'outsiders' and a lively debate ensued — but under the Chatham House rule, so I can't say too much about it directly. I also do not wish to pre-empt the publication of the research. Suffice it to say, it has identified one or two 'problematic' issues.

But what both the rehash of Yes, Minister and the seminar raise (once again) is — do we have the civil service we want and need? There are several more straws in the wind that suggest this issue might soon be turning from one discussed mainly by Whitehall villagers and various Kremlinologists into something a little more serious.

The first is that the chatter from Downing Street is that 'delivery', or rather the lack of it, is still frustrating the prime minister. And it seems the civil service is being targeted as the principal culprit. New Labour wants, expects and needs to see dramatic improvements in public services — but another substantial increase in funding is not an option.

So someone has to be found to either make the extra cash work, or take the blame if it doesn't. That, in a sense, is one of the real political messages of the Gershon and Lyons efficiency and location reviews — 'Look, we've put up the money but the civil service has been wasting it. But we're on to them.'

The second is that the fallout from various inquiries — Hutton, Butler, Bichard — has pointed to systemic problems with Whitehall which need systemic solutions. These issues are being doggedly pursued by the public administration select committee and others inside and outside Parliament. The issue of a Civil Service Act continues to rumble and a new 'Charter 88'-style campaign group dedicated to modernising the service is about to be launched — backed by significant media, academic and ex-mandarin figures.

The third is a negative indication. In recent months, three previous Cabinet secretaries (and heads of the civil service) have launched attacks on the government, blaming Tony Blair's style of running things for a variety of policy failures and crises. This is unprecedented and has to be caused by something. But what?

A charitable view would be that these high-minded public servants see a great wrong occurring that they feel compelled to right. More cynically, it might just be the old guard getting their retaliation in first.

Back in the mid-1990s, one of the three — Sir Robin (now Lord) Butler — was confident that he and the other mandarins had thwarted Conservative minister Michael Heseltine's attempts to introduce revolutionary change in the civil service — essentially by breaking it up. The two Continuity and change white papers, published in 1994 and 1995, were seen as a triumph of continuity over change and their titles a sophisticated, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, way of saying so.

All of this would not come as a shock to anyone who watched Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. In every episode, the mandarinate's ability to protect itself comes across loud and clear.

It is not that nothing has changed. Take the issue of bringing outsiders into Whitehall. There has indeed been a big increase in the numbers of people 'bought in' — but into where and to do what? In the heart of Whitehall, most of the outsiders are either ministerial policy advisers or in specialist units (like the 'drugs czar'). The experience of both groups has not been a happy one and, by and large, it is the advisers and czars who have departed with their tails between their legs.

There are more bought-in specialists in corporate jobs such as finance and personnel, but in the most senior ranks these jobs continue to be filled mainly by career civil service generalists.

There is also a whole layer of more professional hands-on managers in the executive agencies. But what is noticeable is how few of these make it to the very top — the mandarinate proper remains overwhelmingly career generalists, recruited as fresh graduates and schooled 'man and boy' (and now a few women too) in the ways of the Whitehall village.

So maybe we are in for a re-run of the Hacker versus Sir Humphrey battles so brilliantly portrayed in Yes, Minister — the first time round it was farce, this time it might just be reality come May 6.

Colin Talbot is professor of public policy at Nottingham University and director of the Nottingham Policy Centre